Fin whales, as far as the eye could see, hundreds upon hundreds of them, shrouding the horizon in clouds of their breath. Near Antarctica in 2022 (January), guests and crew members on the National Geographic Endurance reportedly stumbled on the magical sight, which was unobserved since industrial whaling had driven the species to almost extinction.
What greeted us as we sailed north of the Coronation Island in 2022 was beyond belief: a horizon covered with whale spouts, mentions Conor Ryan, a resident naturalist and zoologist on the cruise vessel on which the Lindblad Expeditions operate.
Ryan added that as they got closer, the sound of blowing from the whales was all around them. There was condensing whale breath continuously in the air, which needed regular cleaning of sunglasses and camera lenses.
Between 830 and 1,153 fin whales with a handful of blue and humpback whales had gathered to gorge on a krill patch off Coronation Island, which is situated to the north of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Researchers of Stanford University who analyzed images and videos of this event have to say that such a huge baleen whale gathering could be the largest to be seen since industrial whaling stopped during the late 20th century. Earlier, the most significant recorded fin whale gathering was 300 animals.
A little over 100 years ago, witnessing something similar to this probably would not have been uncommon, says Matthew Savoca, an experienced marine ecologist associated with Stanford and the co-author of a new study on the event, published in the Journal Ecology.
Weighing 80 tons, fin whales are second in size to blue whales. About a million colossal cetaceans had once plied the world’s oceans, but a century of whaling lowered the numbers by about 98%.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed the species as vulnerable to extinction, though there’s been increasing numbers.
The incredible sighting makes Savoca, a National Geographic Explorer, more optimistic regarding the recovery of fin whales in the Southern Ocean, he mentions.
At the same time, he is concerned: One of the most significant threats to fin whales happens to be ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gears, and the whales could be spotted amid industrial krill fishing vessels.
Krill fishing concerns
It is good to see that fin whales are back, and more individuals are getting to witness that, explains Helena Herr, a marine mammal ecologist associated with the Centre of Natural History of the University of Hamburg, Germany.
Herr has researched whales in the Southern Ocean, and she says that whales often tend to gather off Coronation Island as its surrounding waters are rich in Antarctic krill.
The tiny crustaceans form the base of the food web in the Southern Ocean as the favourite prey for penguins, squid, and whales. People possess an appetite for krill and remove thousands of tons of them from the Southern Ocean every year for use in food and dietary supplements for farmed fish.
The delight the cruise ship guests and Ryan felt at seeing many fin whales was somewhat tarnished when they realized that fishing vessels were trawling via the whale aggregation. According to him, it was a shocking scenario to witness.
Ryan, a co-author on the new paper, and other experts warn that as whale numbers increase, so will dangerous run-ins with the krill fishing sector — unless stringent measures are adopted.
For example, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) that regulates krill fishing activities in the Southern Ocean must take the nutritional and safety requirements of these whales into account, Savoca mentions.
Besides, the commission has to enforce existing rules, says Herr. Some rules mandate krill fishing must not be carried out close to whales or other feeding living creatures. She mentions that this study reflected that at least the four vessels do not adhere to this.
Per Savoca, how Antarctic krill fisheries are managed over the following decade will help determine if gatherings like the one observed in 2022 (January) become more common — or merely a fluke.
References: National Geographic, Phys.org